The Beginner’s Guide to Buying Art

Author | Mercedes Smith @ Fine Art Communications

The first painting I ever bought was a ten by ten inch painting of the Duomo in Florence. You’re picturing me admiring that painting on a market stall in Italy, aren’t you? But no, in fact I was teaching a painting class here in Cornwall, admiring this wonderful little work over the shoulder of a new student of mine – a woman who had never picked up a brush before in her entire life.

The brilliance of this painting, a semi-abstract in just two vivid colours – pillarbox red and electric pink – was astonishing considering her total lack of art training, and I was so besotted with it I determined to buy it off her before our lunch break. Amazed and slightly embarrassed I should want it, she asked for £5, but I gave her £25, because I loved it, because I already knew what a great artist she would become, and because frankly that’s all I had in my pocket.

I tell you this story as an example of how to buy art well: luck, judgement, passion and paying only what I could afford got me a painting I still admire every day that’s now worth ten times what I paid for it. A decade on, my love for that painting is undiminished, and if my house burned down, it’s still the one object I’d try to retrieve. Since that first purchase, my modest adventures in collecting have taught me some valuable lessons on the dos and don’ts of buying art, and I like to think each year I buy a little smarter. At Cornwall’s Open Studios event this Whit week, which is one of the best annual opportunities to buy great art at a great price, I’ll be out and about hoping to find the next, special piece I just can’t live without, and if you’re at all interested in buying your first work of art, I’d encourage you to do the same. For all you would-be collectors – especially those with just £25 in your pocket – here is my beginners guide to buying your first work of art.

Slightly Savvy Will Do For Starters

Don’t be intimidated by the notion that art is only for the arts educated. That’s nonsense. Art is the most democratic of things, and your opinion is as valid as anyone’s. That said, the first and most important thing to do is get a little education. I don’t mean an MA in Art History, I just mean a basic understanding of what’s what, and what you like. Long before you buy anything, get out to both public and selling galleries and get a feel for what intrigues you. Do great, splashy abstracts grab your attention? Fine watercolours? Contemporary ceramics or sculpture? Be open minded, and pay no attention to prices as you look. This is an exercise in determining your taste, because above all, the greatest thrill of collecting is buying what you love. As your likes and dislikes begin to emerge, do a little online reading about the type of work that interests you. Stick to sites that are known authorities on art: drinking a cuppa and swiping through the online collections of world class venues like the Tate Gallery, for example, can teach you a lot, and their pleasingly short texts on each work are written in plain, no nonsense English.

Love Conquers All

Winning at art collecting, I’ve learned, is like winning at romance: you need to put yourself out there, take your time finding what attracts you, and if you fall in love, go with it – but apply some common sense before you completely commit. The value of my little Duomo painting wasn’t relevant when I bought it, and it’s not relevant to me now. I just loved it, and I wanted it in my life. I can say with complete honesty that every piece of art I’ve ever bought has been a ‘passion buy’, but I’ve used my head when it comes to the figures, not least because I’m hardly the sort of buyer with money to burn. I won’t pretend that I don’t occasionally relish the idea that certain works might net my children a tidy windfall when I’m gone, but I’m equally aware that one day they could be worth half the amount I paid for them. If you’re investing for profit that’s fine, but the art market is famously volatile, so do yourself a favour and buy works you’re genuinely crazy about whatever the return might be, just in case.

Money Isn’t Everything

Don’t imagine you need huge amounts of money to start collecting art. £25 is all I began with – and occasionally I’ve spent even less than that. If you do have loads of money, good for you, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking a big spend means a smart investment. It doesn’t. A smart spend means a smart investment, so whatever your budget you should be looking to get your desired piece for the best possible price. The most you’ll pay for a work is when you buy it from a commercial gallery, but there are good reasons why buying from a gallery can work in your favour. Galleries are always interested in building long term relationships with collectors – even beginners – so be aware that the ‘wall price’ of a particular work isn’t necessarily the gallery’s best price. Don’t be afraid to make a sensible offer for a work you like, and don’t be afraid to bide your time if your offer is politely refused. Go back another time, and if the work is still available, restart the conversation, particularly if a work is still unsold towards the end of a show. At that point galleries can be surprisingly flexible, and may gamble on securing a longer term relationship with you and your art budget.

Open Season

The least you’ll pay for a new work is when you buy it direct from the artist. Artist/gallery relationships require that the artist doesn’t undercut the gallery by selling direct, with one notable exception: Open Studios events. Once or twice a year, artists open their studio doors for several days to all comers, and will try to move on works that didn’t sell at exhibition. Buying at Open Studios is a great move, for several reasons. Firstly, you’ll pay considerably less than the gallery price, sometimes 50% less, and most artists are prepared to negotiate, particularly if you’re interested in more than one work. Secondly, you’ll get to speak to the artist direct, find out more about the work they make, and begin a mutually beneficial relationship with them. Artists need patrons, and patronising the arts is good for our economy, our culture, and the future of the creative arts. It’s a ‘win win’ for everyone and trust me, it’s the most financially smart and ‘feel good’ type of art investment you can make. Graduate shows are another great opportunity to pick up promising new work for a steal. Graduates are unproven so you really are buying blind, but to my mind there’s all the more fun in a gamble like that.

What’s in a Name?

If taking a punt on new artists isn’t your thing, buying from established or celebrated artists might suit you better, but be warned: a well-known signature won’t guarantee you a sound investment, and there are disadvantages to buying work by recognized artists. You’ll pay more than for up-and-coming artists, and since the value of their work will already have climbed during their career, there’s further for your investment to fall. With established artists, the outlay will be larger, and the financial risks may well be the same, not less. That said, investing in the right work can reap huge rewards if you get it right, and getting it right is a thrilling and pretty addictive game for experienced collectors, particularly at auction. If you’ve money to play with, do your research and give it a go, but only spend money you can afford to lose. Crucially, don’t simply trust the name. All great artists will, at some time in their career, have made mediocre or even terrible works, so be discerning. If you are going to gamble on a big name, remember ‘early’ works are usually your safest bet, and ‘provenance’ is absolutely crucial – that’s the paper trail of ownership that proves the work is genuine.

Fun Stuff to Focus Your Investment On

There’s a saying in the fine arts – if something won’t sell, ‘paint it blue’. It sounds ridiculous, but leading art experts will tell you that the colour blue has a positive impact on the saleability, and therefore the value of a work. Blue paintings then, are a safer investment than red, and there are other fun factors to look out for when investing in art. ‘Nudes’ hold their value very well compared to other genres, for reasons which are fairly obvious. Paintings made at any type of artists’ colony are another smart buy (I see you rushing to St Ives for Open Studios already) and curiously, the theft of a work can significantly increase its value if it is later retrieved and verified as genuine. Artists with a serious and well documented temperament problem are another good bet, since the artist’s ‘backstory’ adds greatly to the mystique, and again the value, of their work (see Jackson Pollock and Caravaggio). Finally, paintings of an artist’s ‘muse’ are always in demand, and if the poor girl died horribly, so much the better for your investment, I’m sorry to say (see Elizabeth Siddal and the tragic Jeanne Hébuterne, and weep).

Open Studios Cornwall runs from 19th May to 28th May 2018. See for participating artists and venues.